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Australia: Harsh Police Response During Covid-19

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Click to expand Image Police Public Order Response Teams respond to a small group of protesters who appeared at a shopping center and quickly dispersed before any arrests could be made during pop-up protests on September 20, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.  © 2020 Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via AP Images.

(Sydney) – Victoria’s police have used harsh measures during the Australian state’s Covid-19 lockdown that threaten basic rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Victoria’s parliament should reject a new attempt to broaden police powers.

Victorian police have engaged in abusive practices during the pandemic that raise concerns about their commitment to upholding human rights. Premier Daniel Andrews said on September 12, 2020, that imposing curfews was about giving law enforcement “the easiest set of rules to enforce.” He asserted that the curfew would remain in place “because it was not about human rights, but rather a matter of human life.” A bill passed by Victoria’s lower house would expand the authority to detain people during the pandemic crisis.

“Rights should be upheld and reinforced during a pandemic, not abandoned,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director. “Several recent incidents raise serious concerns that Victoria’s police are taking excessive or disproportionate action against suspected lockdown violators.”

Metropolitan Melbourne has been living under a strict second lockdown since the first week of August, with a daily curfew, currently from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and residents only allowed to leave their homes within a five kilometer radius for a limited time to buy food, provide care, exercise, or attend approved work that requires permits. Victoria faced a severe Covid-19 outbreak after a mismanaged hotel quarantine effort in May. The total number of Covid-19 cases in Victoria as of September 22 was 20,076, with 766 deaths. The majority of these cases resulted from the second outbreak, most of them residents of aged care homes, which led to the second lockdown.

On September 2, in Ballarat, police were recorded on video as they arrested a pregnant woman on incitement charges for organizing an anti-lockdown protest on Facebook. Gatherings have been banned under regional Victoria’s Stage 3 stay-at-home orders, yet arresting, handcuffing, and taking someone to the police station solely for planning a protest is a seemingly disproportionate response. Police handcuffed the woman in front of her children and ignored her offer to delete the post. They have since asserted that their actions were proportionate. The case will return to the courts in January 2021.

An Indigenous man riding his bike to work at about 5:30 a.m. on September 3 alleged that Victoria police tackled, assaulted, and racially abused him. Police say the man failed to stop when asked for a permit check. The police did not have their required body cameras turned on so there is no independent record. The man’s workplace union plans to lodge a complaint with Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) for an independent review. The police said that after an internal debrief they were satisfied with the level of force used.

The media have also reported incidents in which the police allegedly used harassing tactics. These include a law professor with cerebral palsy who alleges that the police told her to “move on,” preventing her from sitting down and resting while out with her 70-year-old mother; a heavily pregnant woman whom police reportedly ordered not to sit down at a park bench for a break; and a young tradesman whom the police fined for allegedly having the wrong column mistakenly filled out on his work permit. 

Data reported by the ABC as of September 3, showed the Victorian police had issued 1,762 fines for breaking curfew, totaling A$2.9 million (US$2 million). The Age newspaper reported that over 10 percent of fines have reportedly been imposed in three of Victoria’s most disadvantaged communities, while Victoria’s three most affluent communities have incurred only 2 percent of the fines. In July, after a rise in coronavirus cases among residents, Victorian authorities suddenly locked down several public housing complexes completely for 14 days, enforced by police, resulting in severe restrictions not imposed elsewhere in the state.

International human rights law, such as found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), recognizes that in the context of a serious public health threat, restrictions on some rights can be justified. But such restrictions must have a legal basis, be strictly necessary, neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, subject to review, and proportionate to achieve the objective.

On September 18, the Victorian government’s lower house passed the Covid-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2020. The bill, if passed by the upper house, would extend powers currently granted only to health officials, to any authorized officer to preemptively detain people who test positive for the virus that causes Covid-19 and who are “likely to refuse or fail to comply with the direction.” Police officers and Protective Services Officers could be among those granted these powers, but it is unclear who would be an “authorized” officer.

Preventive detention authority should only be used in the most serious circumstances, subject to strict limitations and independent review, Human Rights Watch said. If police receive expanded powers under this law, the limitations and rights of appeal would be unclear, as would be whether there is sufficient oversight to prevent misuse or the discriminatory application of the law. 

On September 22, a group of retired judges and leading lawyers wrote a letter to the Victorian premier expressing their alarm over the proposed laws, calling it “unprecedented, excessive and open to abuse.”

“Giving ‘authorized officers’ in Victoria the power to preemptively detain people amid repeated complaints of heavy-handed policing could do more harm than good,” Pearson said. “With Covid-19 numbers in the state falling, now is not the time for new emergency powers.”

Myanmar: Stop Prosecuting Peaceful Protesters

Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Click to expand Image Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, left, and President Win Myint, wearing face masks to protect against the new coronavirus, leave after a Central Executive Committee meeting at their National League for Democracy (NLD) party headquarters in Naypyitaw, Myanmar Tuesday, July 21, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

(Bangkok) – The Myanmar authorities should cease responding to criticism of the government and military with arrests and prosecutions of students protesting human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. They should immediately drop charges against the students and unconditionally release those in custody.

At least 20 students around the country have been charged or are facing arrest under various laws after joining protests or sticker campaigns critical of the government or military, including criticizing the mobile internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States, according to the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU).  

“The Myanmar government deserves a failing grade for intimidating and harassing students peacefully expressing their views,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser. “Neither criticizing the government nor peacefully protesting should be a crime, and the authorities should stop treating them as such.”

On September 10, 2020, members of the student federation conducted a “sticker” campaign in solidarity with Rakhine students who had been arrested the previous day for protesting internet restrictions. The ABFSU members distributed fliers and stickers demanding that 3G and 4G data services be turned back on across eight townships in Rakhine and Chin States. The slogans included: “No bloody government. No murder army” and “Oppose murder and fascism and stand together with the Rakhine people.”

On September 12, the Special Branch unit of the police conducted a nighttime raid on the home of Paing Min Khant, a student in North Okkala, Yangon. “When the police knocked on our door, they told us that they were coming into our home to take temperature checks as part of neighborhood health checks for Covid-19,” Paing Min Khant told Human Rights Watch. “But then they came in and told us they had filed complaints against us under section 19 of the Peaceful Procession and Peaceful Assembly Law in Mayangone and Kyauktada townships [in Yangon].”

Police took him and another student, Wai Yan Phyo Moe, to the Mayangone township police station, where they were told they would face charges under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for failing to notify police when distributing anti-war fliers and stickers in downtown Yangon.

Myanmar’s Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law requires organizers to give notice to the authorities 48 hours before holding a protest or assembly. The law carries a maximum penalty of three months in jail and a fine. Treating the distribution of stickers and flyers as an “assembly” requiring notice is a new and overly broad reading of that law, Human Rights Watch said.

The authorities also threatened Paing Yin Khant and Wai Yan Phyo Moe with possible additional charges under section 505(b) of the Penal Code, which carries a penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine.

The pair said police later took them to the Kyauktada township police station and questioned them about the whereabouts of other students before finally releasing the two around midnight. The students said the police did not immediately file charges against them but said they were conducting the investigations as part of an “open” case.

On September 18, at least 20 police officers conducted a pre-dawn raid of Nyi Lin Htin’s home in Monywa, Sagaing State. The student federation told Human Rights Watch that Nyi Lin Htin was not home and that family members said they were not shown a search warrant.

The police have arrested three other participants in the sticker campaign and charged them with violating section 505(b) of the Penal Code. Police in Meiktila arrested Than Toe Aung and Sann Linn on September 16. They are being held in Meiktila prison in Mandalay Region while they await trial. Another student, Lin Thurako, is detained in Monywa prison, in Sagaing State, where he awaits trial on the same charge.

Section 505(b) of the Penal Code is an overly broad law that prohibits speech that may cause “fear or alarm in the public” and lead others to “upset public tranquility.” The law has long been used against speech critical of the government. It should be amended to cover only speech intended to incite violence or serious public disorder, with those terms clearly defined to ensure that they conform to international standards, Human Rights Watch said.

On September 9, the police arrested three ethnic Rakhine student protesters – Toe Toe Aung, Kyang Naing Htay, and Oo Than Naing – in Sittwe, Rakhine State, for staging a protest and holding signs critical of the government and military. On September 10, they were charged under the Natural Disaster Management Law for holding a protest while Covid-19 regulations were in place. Those charges were dropped on September 22 and authorities said the trio would instead face charges under Section 19 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.

“The police’s use of late-night raids against peaceful student activists is abusive and unnecessary, and serves no purpose other than intimidation,” Lakhdhir said. “The Myanmar government should eliminate criminal penalties for organizing or participating in a peaceful assembly and end the harassment of peaceful critics like these students.”

China: Quash Verdict Against Outspoken Tycoon

Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Click to expand Image Ren Zhiqiang, former Chairman of Huayuan Property Co. Ltd., attends an event in Chengdu city, Sichuan province, China on April 25, 2018.  © 2018 Imaginechina via AP Images

(New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately quash the 18-year sentence against a property tycoon and outspoken critic of President Xi Jinping, Human Rights Watch said today.  

On September 22, 2020, a Beijing court announced on its website that Ren Zhiqiang had been convicted of taking bribes and embezzling public funds. He was also fined 4.2 million yuan (US$620,000).

“The corruption charges against Ren Zhiqiang are a thin cover for President Xi Jinping’s intolerance of dissent,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher. “The 18-year sentence handed down to a Communist Party member and member of the economic elite shows the grim environment for speech in China.”

Ren, 67, is the former chairman of Huayuan, a state-owned real estate group. He was born into a political family – his father was a deputy commerce minister. He rose to public prominence after garnering 38 million followers on the Chinese social media site Weibo. Known as “The Cannon,” Ren often used the platform to express views critical of authorities, and to urge the Communist Party to improve its governance of the country.

In March, the Beijing police detained Ren after he criticized the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. In an online essay, Ren wrote that “People’s lives are harmed by both the virus and the serious ills of the system.” While he did not mention Xi by name, he suggested Xi was a “clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being emperor.”

In July, the Beijing Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Chinese Communist Party’s abusive internal investigation agency, announced that Ren had been expelled from the Party and would be prosecuted on corruption charges. The commission did not make public where Ren was being held, and it is unclear what, if any, access he had to family members or lawyers of his choice.

The case highlights serious due process concerns and the absence of credible, publicly available information to substantiate the charges against Ren. The trial, held on September 9 at the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court, was secret. Neither the court nor Chinese state media released any information regarding the proceedings. Ren’s friends said that he was represented by a government-appointed lawyer, but it is unclear whether he had requested his own lawyer. The court said Ren had confessed to all charges and would not appeal.

The authorities’ treatment of Ren in detention is unknown, but as Human Rights Watch documented in a 2016 report, abuses against detainees in corruption cases are common. They include prolonged sleep deprivation, being forced into stress positions for extended periods, deprivation of water and food, and severe beatings. Detainees are also subject to solitary and incommunicado detention in unofficial detention facilities. After “confessing” to corruption, suspects are typically brought into the criminal justice system, convicted, and sentenced to often lengthy prison terms.

In February 2016, Ren was banished from social media in China after he criticized Xi for calling on the Chinese media to “serve the Party” in a speech. The authorities publicly censured Ren and put him on a one-year probation from the Party.

“Ren’s sham trial may put him in prison for the rest of his life,” Wang said. “A failure to immediately release Ren would show the world that China’s legal system is a tool for settling political scores, not delivering justice.”

Cameroon: Soldiers Get 10 Years for Murder of Civilians

Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Click to expand Image A screenshot of the video showing soldiers taking a woman and a child to the place where they would be later killed in Zelevet, Far North region, Cameroon, 2015. © 2018 BBC Africa Eye 

(Nairobi) – On September 21, a military court in Cameroon sentenced 4 soldiers to 10 years in prison and 1 other to 2 years for the brutal killing of 2 women and 2 children in 2015. While the sentence breaks the norm of impunity for military abuses, the potential impact of the trial in setting accountability standards was compromised because the trial and sentencing took place behind closed doors and lacked transparency.

“Denying the public access to the trial is a breach of due process for the defendants, but also deprives the public of vital knowledge about and understanding of the trial,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s not just a breach of international standards, but of a duty to the public to enable them have confidence in the rule of law by seeing justice done.”

The 2015 executions, carried out by the soldiers in the village of Zelevet in Cameroon’s Far North region, were captured in a video that went viral in early July 2018. Seven soldiers who had been part of one of the many security operations against the Islamist armed group Boko Haram were ultimately put on trial. Five were found guilty on August 17, 2020 by a Yaoundé military court. The court ruled that two soldiers who had appeared in the video were not guilty, as “they watched the scene as others did the killings.” The lawyer of one of those convicted announced that he intends to appeal.

The seven soldiers were charged with joint participation in murder, breach of regulations, and conspiracy. Their trial started in August 2019, but holding it behind closed doors and not allowing national or international scrutiny of the proceedings casts doubts about the trial’s fairness. The court’s reasoning is unclear, as judicial authorities did not make any information about the trial public. A lawyer who had access to the case file told Human Rights Watch: “We have no idea as to what guided the judges on this verdict. We do not know what elements the court did or did not take into account.”

A civil suit on behalf of the victims’ families, allowed in military courts in Cameroon, was not filed.

The video showing the killing was initially dismissed as “fake news” by Cameroon’s communications minister. But a forensic analysis established that it was authentic and that the military was responsible for the killings. Cameroonian authorities later announced that the seven soldiers depicted in the video had been arrested and would be prosecuted.

Cameroon’s armed forces have been repeatedly implicated in other serious crimes since the 2015 killings, and the government’s reaction has been to deny responsibility. In February 2020, Cameroonian soldiers killed 21 civilians in the village of Ngarbuh, in the North West region, in a reprisal attack aimed at punishing the population, whom the security forces accused of sheltering armed separatists. The government initially denied that the soldiers committed any crimes. However, officials later admitted that soldiers bore some responsibility for the killings and ordered the arrest of three members of the security forces.

Cameroonian security forces have committed widespread human rights violations and crimes in their counterinsurgency operations against Boko Haram in the Far North region, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, incommunicado detention, systematic torture, deaths in custody, forced return of refugees, and forced labor.

“Courts should explain and defend how they reached their verdict and justify the rationale for the sentences they hand down,” Mudge said. “If Cameroonian authorities are to make meaningful efforts to ensure accountability for abuses against civilians and end impunity, proceedings have to be transparent and should be before civilian courts.”

Turkmenistan: Denial, Inaction Worsen Food Crisis

Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Click to expand Image A woman sells herbs in Ashgabat. © 2018 TIHR

(New York) – Government inaction in response to the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically exacerbated Turkmenistan’s pre-existing food crisis, Human Rights Watch and the Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) said today. Shortages of subsidized food, accelerating since 2016, have worsened, with people waiting hours in line to try to buy more affordable food products, often being turned away empty-handed.

Turkmenistan’s government denies the existence of poverty in the country and has failed to provide relief to economically vulnerable groups, even as unemployment has skyrocketed during the pandemic. In the absence of any strategy to provide economic or social assistance, constraints on people’s access to affordable food mean that the government is failing to meet its international obligations to ensure an adequate standard of living and the right to food.

“Turkmenistan’s government has prioritized the country’s image over people’s well-being,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “With no effort to identify and assist the people most in need at this critical moment, Turkmenistan is callously neglecting the most basic norms of human rights, which include the right to food.”

The Turkmen government should take immediate measures to make sure that people can get adequate food, Human Rights Watch and TIHR said. The government should also commission an independent, nationwide household survey to assess poverty and food security, make the data public, and use the information to ensure effective, affordable access to adequate, nutritious food for all members of society.

The country’s only universal assistance program provides government-subsidized food in so-called state shops. Anyone in Turkmenistan can buy food at state shops, an affordable alternative to privately owned shops selling food at market prices. But supplies began to falter in 2015-2016, after the global decline in hydrocarbon prices started to hit Turkmenistan’s state budget.

The Turkmen government, one of the world’s most repressive and secretive, strictly controls citizens’ movements and communications, censors the media, and severely punishes critics. Although media inside the country do not report on the shortages, TIHR and other émigré-based sources, including the Amsterdam-based Turkmen News and the United States government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)’s Turkmen service (Azatlyk Radiosi) have covered them widely.

Human Rights Watch spoke with Turkmen citizens living abroad who had recently visited the country, and TIHR has spoken with numerous people inside the country about the situation. Their accounts were consistent with numerous reports in émigré outlets.

“Compared to a year ago, our family eats less,” a Turkmen father of eight told TIHR in July 2020. “That’s because we have less money, and [food] prices have gone up. We’ve had problems getting food due to the lines and the shortages.”

In November 2019, a student told Human Rights Watch that his family was spending 70 to 80 percent of their income on food, and a pensioner said her family was spending almost all their income on food. People interviewed said they spend several hours a day waiting in lines for subsidized food, and that the lines and unpredictability of food supply caused great stress.

Turkmenistan’s domestic food production only meets around 40 percent of national demand, the rest is imported. About 80 percent of imports come from Iran. Declining hydrocarbon income since 2014 and several poor harvests have constrained Turkmenistan’s food supplies. In early 2020, the supply of subsidized food began to falter to an even greater degree, in part due to the border closure with Iran.

At the same time, the global economic downturn threw many Turkmen out of work and slashed the foreign remittance incomes upon which many Turkmen families survived, and Covid-19 travel restrictions prevented people from traveling abroad for work. Meanwhile, prices in free market shops and bazaars skyrocketed. As a result, people in Turkmenistan faced even more uncertain, demeaning, and sometimes insurmountable obstacles to obtaining adequate food, Human Rights Watch and TIHR found.

The authorities strive to paint a rosy picture of living standards, claiming that the country is living in an “era of greatness and happiness” and frequently showing fully stocked, orderly shops in state media. Police break up lines outside shops and force shoppers to wait by back doors, away from the street, where they would be visible. At the same time, the government indirectly recognized the food crisis, creating a commission in late March to support local producers and keep prices stable though price controls. But prices continued to rise through the summer.

The government has made no effort to provide direct assistance to, or even identify, low-income or otherwise disadvantaged segments of the population suffering the most from dwindling access to subsidized food and rising prices. On August 19, Human Rights Watch and TIHR sent a letter to the Turkmen government requesting information about its poverty estimates and policies for poverty alleviation and food security. They have not yet received a reply.

State food price subsidies, ostensibly provided to all citizens equally, have failed to increase the availability of food for economically vulnerable groups. Anecdotal reports suggest that access is at times influenced by personal connections, including buying in bulk for later resale. Some state stores, without warning, limit the hours during which ration book holders may make purchases, or insist that customers buy more expensive items as a condition for buying subsidized food. This further hinders access to basic foodstuffs for poorer Turkmen. Single pensioners and others without family support, unable to wait in long lines, may be particularly affected.

Click to expand Image A food truck arrives at a state shop in Ashgabat. © 2019 TIHR


The government should consider other ways to protect people from food insecurity, TIHR and Human Rights Watch said. These include food voucher programs that allow people to purchase goods at private shops or the bazaar, or cash transfer programs to people with incomes below the minimum subsistence level for an adequate standard of living The government should also reassess the contribution which currency controls – limiting the ability to buy or sell foreign currency – have on the rising prices of imported foods and Turkmens’ capacity to purchase food, and make appropriate changes to help ensure availability of and access to affordable food.

“Rather than create policies to protect its citizens in this time of crisis, the government’s actions have further imperiled people’s ability to access food,” said Farid Tubatullin, director of TIHR. “Turkmenistan should immediately take stock of low-income individuals and their needs, and urgently expand food assistance.”

For further details about the Human Rights Watch findings, please see below.

Click to expand Image People crowd a state store in Ashgabat. © 2018 TIHR


Methodology

The Turkmen government tightly controls all aspects of public life and systematically denies freedoms of association, expression, and religion. The country is completely closed to all independent scrutiny, and the government does not tolerate independent civic activism. The few people who do human rights work do so under the radar and at great personal risk.

TIHR gathered information about food security through anonymous interviews its activists conducted inside the country. It drew on these interviews for its public reporting on this issue in the news website, Chronicles of Turkmenistan. Human Rights Watch interviewed five Turkmen who were outside the country, reviewed data published by the Turkmen government, various United Nations agencies, the Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank, and reviewed émigré publications that do regular, reliable reporting on developments in Turkmenistan. Full names of those interviewed were withheld for their security.

State-Subsidized Food

People in Turkmenistan, if they can afford it, purchase food at free market prices from private shops and bazaars where food supplies had been mostly stable before the pandemic. Those who cannot afford it turn to a network of Trade Ministry-run stores which offer certain basic, low-quality commodity foods, generally flour, bread, cottonseed and sunflower seed cooking oil, sugar, eggs, and frozen chicken, at highly subsidized prices. For example, a one-liter bottle of vegetable oil costs twice as much at the bazaar as at the state-subsidized price, and a kilogram of flour costs nearly seven times as much. Access to government stores is based on place of residence, and anyone with a residence permit for that area may shop there.

Faced with sudden supply constraints due to strict external border closures in response to the pandemic, privately owned shops dramatically hiked their market prices in March. In the past 12 months, the market price of flour rose by 50 percent and cooking oil by 130 percent. The border closures also resulted in some imported products, such as potatoes from neighboring Iran, disappearing entirely. Turkmenistan has denied having any cases of Covid-19, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Business disruptions and job losses suddenly cut incomes for many, boosting the number of people needing subsidized food. The price of subsidized food in state shops remained relatively stable, but the supply dropped. State shops have struggled for years with decreasing food supplies, which have dwindled even further during the pandemic. Lines have grown longer, with fights and, in some cases, protests, sometimes breaking out. In an unprecedented public show of unrest in April, TIHR reported, dozens of women protested the lack of food in the southern province of Mary.

Waiting in Line

Aya, 60, a migrant worker outside of Turkmenistan, told Human Rights Watch in November 2019: “I should be retired already, taking care of my grandchildren. But I’m still here. Because there is no money [in Turkmenistan]! Almost all of our money goes to food. I send home US$100 per month, but it’s not enough. Two or three years ago, it was enough.” She and her husband’s pensions just cover the household utility bills.

Standing in line is often onerous. “Our mother is the one who waits in lines at the state stores,” said Sapar, a father of 8. “She gets up every day between 4 and 6 a.m. and goes to stand in line … someone else may come to relieve her closer to the time the store opens. Lines may be 3 to 4 hours long until it’s your turn.”

“The most important are the lines for bread. Bread is very expensive at the bazaar: 4-5 manat [approximately $1.14], and it’s 2 manat in the state store,” Aya said. “My husband is 62. He waits in the lines for bread, waits 1 or 2 hours.”

A Turkmen student studying abroad said: “Most people are waiting [in lines] starting at 3 a.m.; the stores open at 7.… Most are living in poor conditions and so they have no alternatives.”

This student’s combined family income allowed them, at the end of 2019, to buy food at bazaars and private shops; he estimated that his family spent 70 to 80 percent of the household budget on food. Data that the government provided in a report to the UN stated that average monthly individual wage in 2018 was 1,570 manat. But a retired diplomat who served in Turkmenistan and closely followed the country’s food situation said that he estimated that before 2019, 85 percent of the population survived on $2,000 annually per person, 7,000 manat at the official rate, or about 600 manat a month.

The student’s neighbors are among those with much more limited means, with funds sufficient only for subsidized food in state stores:

Do shops run out? It happens very often [that] three to four hours after opening there is nothing left. The stores sell out quickly. My neighbor is in that situation [remaining empty-handed] when the stores run out of food.

Sapar said:

Nearly every other time we go to the store it happens that our turn comes and we can’t buy what we had intended because it’s run out. This is because there are only small quantities sold in the state stores and they are finished after an hour or two. There’s not enough, even for people who lined up early in the morning. If [the items] haven’t run out, then you can buy something, but if [they’ve run out], then you go home empty-handed. If you have money, then you can get them at the market price. The bazaar and the private shops always have the same items, but they are two to three times more expensive.

TIHR, together with media outlets Turkmen News and Azadlyk Radiosi, have monitored food availability in Turkmenistan’s regions in recent years. They report that staple foods periodically have not been available in state stores in various regions since 2016. Eggs and frozen chicken are frequently not available. In mid-2020, sources reported that chicken is available only at private shops. Other goods such as cooking oil, bread, and flour have also been unavailable for periods in various regions.

Food Rationing Not a Guarantee of Food Security

In June, four of the country’s five provinces imposed limits on how much each person could buy, enforced by ration books issued by local officials based on residency permits. Though the capital, Ashgabat, and the surrounding Ahal Province have not yet introduced formal rationing, other measures limit amounts per customer. On March 28, state stores temporarily placed a monetary ceiling on purchases, ranging from 40 to 80 manat ($11.40 to $22.80 at the official exchange rate) and required all transactions to be with state bank cards. Both requirements were lifted in Ashgabat by late summer.

Even with rationing, people reported being unable to obtain allotted amounts of staple foods. Under previous rationing schemes, rationed quantities, even when accessible, are often not enough to feed a family and far from nutritionally adequate. In some areas, the flour ration was cut from five to three kilos per month, and there are reports in some areas that it was one kilogram per month – when it was available at all.

A woman Human Rights Watch interviewed last November said that the only subsidized food items available in her family’s rural town were bread, cottonseed oil, and salt. Sources in the capital have noted increasing numbers of people begging for money or food in the streets, as well as greater numbers of individuals and families with children combing through dumpsters for scraps and recyclables.

Click to expand Image People waiting inside a shop in Ashgabat. © 2019 TIHR


Even when subsidized food is available, state stores sometimes arbitrarily restrict purchases. In one province, people have reported that shop workers randomly and without warning limit store hours. In some cases, if residents do not manage to purchase their monthly allotment before the end of the month, they were no longer eligible for that month’s allotment. In Ashgabat, observers have recently reported shoppers being forced to buy unwanted goods that they may not be able to afford, such as expensive rice or bottled water, at elevated prices to be allowed purchase staples such as cooking oil at the subsidized price. Local authorities have imposed various burdensome paperwork requirements to obtain subsidized goods, including additional certificates from local housing committees on the number of persons living in a household. An investigation in Balkanabad province found that shop employees routinely cheat customers by dispensing smaller volumes of dry staple goods than set out in regulations. Turkmen News said that the authorities have reacted to complaints by dismissing some store workers and increasing rations.

Government Denial, Inadequate Data, and Failure to Address Poverty and Food Needs

The corruption watchdog Global Witness, Radio Liberty, and Turkmen News have all reported on the secrecy surrounding Turkmenistan’s economy, on large-scale corruption, and on billions in unaccountable funds allegedly stashed abroad. The government has spent lavishly on vanity construction projects and international sporting competitions in recent years.

Turkmenistan covers up the existence of poverty within its borders. It is unclear whether the government has established a national subsistence level. The government declines to release figures on either the number of people living below a national subsistence level, if it exists, or the international standard of $1.90 per day. In 2018, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific estimated that 21.8 percent of Turkmenistan’s population live below the national poverty line, although the report did not provide the poverty line figure or its source.

A 2017-2019 World Bank project provided technical assistance to Turkmenistan on measuring social welfare. The government refused to share any of the data generated by the pilot study with the bank. The bank concluded that it could not assess whether the project furthered the goal of reducing poverty, and that without greater openness and transparency, Turkmenistan would not be able to develop data-driven responses to poverty.

Although the Turkmen government has no discernable anti-poverty program, according to its 2019 submission to the UN in connection with the Sustainable Development Goals, the state provides “social transfers and assistance to incapacitated persons, elderly persons living alone, people with disabilities, families with children and other persons through provision of monetary payments” and various services. Human Rights Watch and TIHR are not in a position to assess the adequacy of these services or the degree to which they impact food security.

International financial institutions have, since 2012, classified Turkmenistan as an upper-middle income country, based on data provided by the government. A diplomat and a staff member with a multilateral agency told Human Rights Watch that government economic data was notoriously unreliable, a view shared by an economist who specializes in the Central Eurasia region. The United Kingdom Department for International Trade has also stated that “no reliable economic data are published in Turkmenistan” and that figures it releases to international financial institutions “do not always square with observations on the ground.”

According to the 2019 UN Development Programme Human Development Report, calculated on the basis of government-supplied statistics, only 0.4 percent of Turkmenistan’s population lives in multidimensional poverty, which incorporates 10 indicators in the categories of health, education, and standard of living. Turkmenistan’s 2019 voluntary review of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does not provide chapters on the goals of eliminating poverty and hunger. The chapter on reducing inequality states that state social transfers accounted for 12.7 percent of the income of the country’s “most disadvantaged households,” including people with disabilities, older people living alone, etc.

Nonetheless, some statistical evidence of malnourishment exists. The Asian Development Bank, using UN statistics, reports that 11.5 percent of Turkmenistan’s children under age 5 suffered from stunting as of 2015.

Turkmenistan also failed to report the number of food-insecure citizens to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for a 2019 report. The number suffering undernourishment in 2016-2018 is listed in the report as 300,000, or 5.4 percent of the population. However, the FAO report does note that in 2015-2017, the last years that data were gathered for the report, Turkmenistan was among the commodity-dependent countries facing economic factors that can indicate the prevalence of undernourishment is increasing: high food prices, growing unemployment, and loss of income.

According to World Bank data, unemployment has been officially pegged for a decade at four percent or just under, although independent media have cited estimates as high as 60 percent in 2020. Reflecting official Turkmenistan government statistics, the UN World Food Programme’s 2018 Hunger Map puts Turkmenistan in the “Moderately Low” category for presence of hunger, from 5 to 14.9 percent, equal to its neighbors Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Population movement, however, strongly belies the official government picture. Radio Azatlyk, citing unnamed government sources, reported that emigration has led to a decline in Turkmenistan’s population by almost 1.9 million people, or about 30 percent, between 2008 and 2018, whereas official figures still insist that the population is 5.8 million. In addition to permanent emigration, thousands of Turkmen citizens, from 11 to 16 percent of the current working-age population by some estimates, have migrated for temporary jobs abroad, most of them to Turkey. The Turkish migration service has registered 25,000, but many times that are said to be living and working undocumented.

External Pressures, State Policies Increase Vulnerability

Natural gas provides the main source of revenue in Turkmenistan’s economy. In 2014, before the dramatic drop in the price of natural gas, according to one study, Turkmenistan depended on “revenue from the gas sector for 35 percent of GDP, 90 percent of total exports, and 80 percent of fiscal revenues.” According to Luca Anceschi, Senior Lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, “in the last four to five years, the non-gas sector of the economy shrank faster than Turkmenistan’s natural gas, with devastating impacts on the economy at large.”

Turkmenistan’s food crisis began to accelerate in 2015-2016, set off by the 2014 drop in natural gas prices, Russia’s sudden suspension of gas purchases, and a price dispute with Iran, another major purchaser. With its earnings cut, the government responded by limiting food imports. It also restricted open conversions of the manat, forcing traders to buy hard currency on the black market at a rate five times the official rate.

After a series of poor domestic harvests, the government purchased grain from neighboring Kazakhstan, but consumer prices for flour still rose unsustainably for many. According to Agriculture and Water Ministry data that TIHR was able to unofficially obtain, the 2018 grain harvest totaled less than one-third the officially claimed figure of 1.6 million tons, with 30 percent unfit for consumption. To supplement export revenues, the government also began to cut acreage planted under wheat in favor of sowing more cotton, further curtailing the potential domestic food supply.

The government claimed to be pursuing a policy of strict import substitution to curb expenditures and achieve food self-sufficiency, but has not yet seen hoped-for results in increased domestic production. The Economist Intelligence Unit reported a 37 percent overall drop in imports in 2018, and a similar drop the following year. With imports intentionally cut and domestic production lagging, supplies of food in state subsidized shops grew spotty. RFE/RL reported severe shortages of bread and flour beginning December 2017 in rural areas, recurring in 2018-2019, and eventually extending to the capital. These steady shortfalls have gradually worsened before reaching a crisis point in spring 2020 with the imposition of formal rationing.

As supplies of subsidized food shrank and market prices rose, other measures further exacerbated people’s economic desperation, and, potentially, their ability to buy enough food to feed their families. In 2019, the government ended subsidies for utility payments, except for people with serious disabilities, adding fees for electricity, gas, and water to already straining household budgets. The World Bank acknowledged that this step would, without mitigation measures, hurt the “household welfare … of the poor or bottom 40 percent of the population.”

New currency controls further weakened purchasing power. Many Turkmen depend on remittance payments from relatives abroad. But to preserve hard currency, in 2018, the government mandated that cash transfer companies not pay out those remittances in dollars or euros, but in the state currency, manats, calculated at the official exchange rate of 3.5 per USD. With hard currency in hand, citizens could purchase manat at a far higher black market rate, which hovered, in 2019, around 18.5, and in mid-July 2020, at 24. Thus, the value of support from abroad was drastically cut. The International Organization for Migration estimated in 2014 that Turkmen migrant laborers sent $30 million to the country, but by 2016, the International Monetary Fund estimated a decline to about $16 million, and to $1 million in 2019.

The remittance payments themselves are evaporating due to the Covid-19 economic downturn across the globe. The World Bank projected that Central Asia would be particularly hard hit by a decline in remittances, projected to reach 27.5 percent in the region. The Asian Development Bank concluded that “remittance-dependent households in developing countries will likely be hit hard and their capacity to secure affordable food and basic nutrition compromised.”

Currency limitations extend to manat as well, as Ashgabat residents currently report finding it increasingly difficult to withdraw cash from their own accounts at bank machines, with lines forming early in the morning. Without cash, even those with means cannot make purchases at private shops and markets that do not accept bank card payments. Starting on September 8, in at least one region, one bank introduced vouchers for obtaining cash from cash machines.

In an August 19 letter, Human Rights Watch and TIHR asked the government for information on whether the authorities considered the impact import substitution, currency controls, and the like would have on food security for people living on lower incomes, and whether the authorities made any efforts to mitigate the impact of these measures. The government has not yet responded.

The Right to Food and Turkmenistan’s International Obligations

The right to food is recognized in international human rights law, on its own, and as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living. Art. 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which Turkmenistan has been a party since 1997, explicitly requires the government to ensure that everyone is “free from hunger.” However, the minimum core obligation to ensure an adequate standard of living also requires governments to ensure access to nutritionally adequate and safe food.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has described the realization of the right to food as a state in which “every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical or economic access at all times to adequate food or the means for its procurement.” This means that the government should facilitate people’s ability to get food with dignity and provide food through assistance programs or a safety net, if people are unable to get food without such support. In times of crisis, the government needs to take all available measures to maintain access to sufficient food and take into account the situation of impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged groups.

Turkmenistan also has obligations to respect the right to food, as a party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child since September 1993, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, since May 1997, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, since September 2008. Turkmenistan’s constitution in art. 25 ostensibly protects citizens’ and residents’ rights “in accordance with the universally recognized norms of international law.”

Syria’s 100 Dollar Barrier to Return

Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Click to expand Image Members of the Lebanese General Security Directorate oversee Syrian refugees boarding a bus to take them home to Syria, in the northern Beirut suburb of Burj Hammoud, Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019.  © 2019 AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

The Syrian government insists that each Syrian national entering Syria must exchange US$100 for Syrian pounds at the official rate.

The policy was put in place in July, ostensibly to help the government replete its foreign currency reserves amid an unprecedented economic crisis. But in reality, it has only added another obstacle to prevent Syrians who wish to go home from returning.

One man, who has been living in Lebanon with his family, tried to return to Syria after losing his job, but having to pay $100 for each of his relatives was too much. As a day laborer in Lebanon, he barely made $150 a month before the devaluation of the Lebanese currency. He said he could have sold all his furniture and still would not have enough for them all to return. Another man said he had enough money to send his family to Syria, while he remained in Lebanon, moving into a house with other people to save on rent and collect the amount they needed to cross.

Another we spoke to said he was able to pay the fee by borrowing from relatives. Syrians with residency in Lebanon, who used to cross the border regularly, are now faced with a financial barrier that is impossible to overcome. In the period following the implementation of the decision, several Syrians were stranded between the Lebanese and Syrian borders, unable to pay the fee to go home.

This is just that latest policy by the Syrian government to make it difficult for Syrians to return home, along with arbitrary restrictions on access, home demolitions, and laws that allow the government to confiscate lands and homes without due process or adequate compensation.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees everyone the right to return to their country. There’s no price tag attached to that right.

Instead of punishing Syrians who left, the government should address the root causes of the economic crisis and allow Syrians who wish to return back in.

UK Seeks to Stop Justice for War Crimes

Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Click to expand Image British troops conduct a dawn foot patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, May 10, 2013. © 2013 Ben Birchall/Press Association via AP Images

The rule of law means that those responsible for the worst crimes should be promptly and fairly prosecuted. Yet the UK government is seeking parliament’s approval of a law – the Overseas Operations Bill – that would make it nearly impossible to prosecute British soldiers for torture and other war crimes committed overseas. With this bill the government shows contempt for the rule of law, violates the UK’s international commitments to prosecute the worst crimes, and risks creating impunity for grave abuse.  

Britain has a long and shameful history of failing to prosecute its nationals responsible for major crimes overseas – such as Reginald Dyer, the general who ordered the Amritsar massacre that killed hundreds of Indians. In 1950s Kenya, the British colonial state was responsible for widespread torture – the UK acknowledged this, 50 years later, but none of the alleged torturers ever faced trial.

More recently, the evidence is overwhelming that some British forces in Iraq committed serious abuses, often amounting to war crimes. Public inquiries and court rulings have found that British forces abused detainees, sometimes causing their deaths. Commanders and government ministers should have known about and prevented such abuse. Such failure to prevent war crimes is itself a criminal offense.

Despite this evidence, virtually no British soldier has been prosecuted, let alone convicted for war crimes. A public inquiry found that Baha Mousa, an Iraqi hotel receptionist, was beaten to death in British custody in 2003, but only one British soldier, a corporal, was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison. British governments have directly interfered to prevent UK nationals being prosecuted, shutting down investigations into alleged crimes committed by forces in Iraq and Afghanistan before they had completed their work.

The Overseas Operations Bill would make it nearly impossible to prosecute genuine cases. It would create a “presumption against prosecution” after five years for torture and other war crimes allegedly committed by members of UK forces overseas. The law would increase the power of the attorney general, a member of the government, to protect soldiers from prosecution.

This new law would send a clear message that the government’s aim is to prevent justice for the most serious crimes committed by British nationals against foreigners. Parliament should reject it.

Lebanon Risks Another Trash Crisis

Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Click to expand Image A beach where a heavy winds and strong waves washed ashore piles of garbage in Keserwan, north of Beirut, Lebanon, on 23 January 2018.  © 2018 Marwan Naamani/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Beirut’s port explosion, which killed 212 people and obliterated large parts of the city on August 4, has put additional strains on Lebanon’s already compromised ability to manage its waste.

The rubble and demolition debris alone vastly increased the daily volume of generated waste. Additionally, the blast severely damaged two key sorting, recycling, and composting facilities in Karantina and Bourj Hammoud, as well as waste collection vehicles. A World Bank Group assessment estimates the blast’s damage to the environment sector, including the waste management infrastructure in Beirut, at between US$20 and $25 million.

Meanwhile, and at the worst possible time, the Bourj Hammoud/Jdeideh Landfill – one of two principal landfills servicing Beirut – is scheduled to shut down this month after reaching its maximum capacity.

The problem is not new for Lebanon. Five years ago, garbage piled up and flooded streets across Beirut after the government closed the Naameh Landfill without identifying an alternate site. The government responded by creating temporary landfills in Bourj Hammoud/Jdeideh and in Costa Brava. Since then, the government has continued to rely – with limited success – on similar stopgap measures. Last year, garbage piled up on streets in northern Lebanon after an unregulated dumpsite was closed without an environmentally sound alternative. Earlier this summer, garbage again filled the streets of Beirut and surrounding areas. 

Lebanese President Michel Aoun held a meeting on September 21 with caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab and Environment Minister Damianos Kattar to address the crisis. According to LBCI, a local television channel, one of the proposed measures is to again expand the Bourj Hammoud/Jdeideh landfill and temporarily extend its life expectancy.

The costs of inaction in addressing Lebanon’s trash crisis are huge. Lebanon spends almost 10 times more on its waste sector than Jordan and Tunisia, but still fails to manage its garbage, thereby interfering with people’s right to health and a healthy environment.

Lebanon’s next government, whenever it is formed, will have a lot on its plate. To avoid another trash crisis, it should urgently adopt an integrated approach to solid waste management that decreases reliance on landfills and prioritizes the health of residents. It is time that authorities solve this crisis once and for all.

Pakistan Court’s Mental Health Ruling Promises Reform

Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Click to expand Image The Supreme court building is seen in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 17, 2017. © 2017 AP Photo/Anjum Naveed

On September 21, the Pakistan Supreme Court directed a medical board to examine two death row prisoners with psychosocial disabilities, or mental health conditions, seeking expert opinion on mental health as a mitigating factor in capital punishment cases.

Ghulam Abbas and Kanizan Fatima Bibi, who had been convicted of murder, had filed for review of a 2015 Supreme Court decision that upheld their death sentences on the basis that there was insufficient evidence of their disability. The claimants and the Punjab provincial government argued that the court ignored the prisoners’ mental health condition at the time of the judgment.

Kanizan Fatima is one of the few women on death row in Pakistan. According to her lawyers, she has not spoken for 14 years and is unable to eat, drink, or take care of herself without assistance. She has been in prison for 31 years.

Ghulam Abbas has spent more than 14 years on death row. Human rights organizations have urged that his mental health condition should be comprehensively assessed. Abbas’ lawyers say that medical records show that he had received mental health medication in prison.

The Supreme Court’s decision to review its earlier ruling is an important development and presents a valuable opportunity for reform. The death penalty is inherently cruel, inhumane, and irreversible. Executing an individual with psychosocial disabilities would also violate Pakistan’s international legal obligations. The United Nations Human Rights Committee and UN special experts have determined that the execution of a person with a psychosocial disability violates the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment.

The unfairness and high risk of error present in capital prosecutions in Pakistan has been documented extensively. Executing people with psychosocial disabilities is an affront to human decency and serves no criminal justice purpose. Pakistan should strengthen its judicial institutions to prevent unjust sentencing and move towards a complete moratorium on the death penalty.

Russian Repression a Persistent Reality in Crimea

Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Click to expand Image Crimean Solidarity activists in the defendant’s box during sentencing, September 16, 2020. © Private

Last week, a Russian military court sentenced seven Crimean Tatars to prison terms ranging from 13 to 19 years. It is part of a pattern of politically motivated prosecutions that has been happening in Russia-occupied Crimea for the past six years.

The seven men were convicted of organizing or participating in a “terrorist organization.” One man was acquitted.

In a system based on rule of law and justice, none would even have been prosecuted.

The men are activists with Crimean Solidarity which was established in 2016 to support Crimean Tatars arrested or jailed on politically motivated grounds. It helped organize legal support for detainees, financial and social support for their families, and live-streamed court proceedings and police searches. Since 2017, authorities have jailed the group’s members and raided their homes.

The activists were accused of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamist movement that seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate based on Sharia, but publicly denounces violence as a means to achieve its goal. In 2003, Russia banned Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization, but it is not banned in Ukraine or most of Europe. In recent years, Russian authorities have prosecuted dozens of peaceful activists in Crimea for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir.

None of the charges against the eight were related to planning, carrying out, or being an accessory to any act of violence.

From the beginning, authorities showed disregard for due process. They conducted warrantless searches at the homes of six of the men during their arrest in 2017. Two lawyers representing some of the men told me the security services and police refused to let them enter the homes during the searches. The lawyers were also denied timely access to procedural documents. As is usual in such cases in Crimea, the prosecution relied mostly on recordings of discussions about religion and politics obtained through wire-tapping, and testimony from “secret witnesses.”

Crimean Tatars have been the main voice of peaceful dissent to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. As a result they have also been victims of enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, and ill-treatment in custody. Last week’s verdict, once again, shows just how determined Russian authorities are to make Crimean Tatar activists – and their families – pay the price and how they will subvert the law and courts to do so.

US: Officials’ Pandemic Response Impaired Right to Vote

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

(Washington, DC, September 22, 2020) – Responses by election officials in the United States to the Covid-19 pandemic seriously impaired some people’s ability to vote in primary elections, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Election officials need to ensure that every method of voting allowed in their state is easy to access and use for all voters, so that there can be a credible US general election on November 3, 2020. 

The 83-page report, “What Democracy Looks Like: Protecting Voting Rights in the US during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” examines changes that election officials made in response to the Covid-19 pandemic prior to the 2020 primaries in Arizona, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin and their impact on the right to vote. Human Rights Watch recommended steps US election officials should take for the November election and beyond to prevent violations of voting rights, which during the primaries had discriminatory impacts on Black and Latinx people.

“During the 2020 US primaries, many voters faced closed polling places or long lines, or had to choose between their right to vote and their health,” said Alison Parker, US program managing director at Human Rights Watch and the report’s author. “State and local officials will need to make sure these restrictions on voter rights are not repeated in November and that voting options and their availability – including the numbers of polling stations – are greater, not fewer.”

In Wisconsin’s spring primaries, many citizens, particularly Black and Latinx people, could not vote in Milwaukee because they could not spare hours or were physically unable to stand in line, lacked transport, or feared exposure to the Covid-19 virus at the few and crowded polling places that remained open as officials adjusted to a shortage of poll workers. Closing polling places contradicts scientific recommendations on reducing crowds and lines during the pandemic.

Given the preference, according to studies, of many Black people for visual confirmation that their vote was cast by voting in person, poll closures and consolidation in Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania and in Richland County, South Carolina, may have had a disproportionate effect on their right to vote because they could not find polling locations, lacked transport, or were unable to wait in line.

“I was so upset,” said a 67-year-old woman living in Columbia, South Carolina whose normal polling place was closed, was turned away from the poll she was sent to, and was told, too late, that she needed to travel to yet a third polling place. “For the first time since I was 18 years old, I could not vote. It was horrible that night. I felt like they did not care if I voted or not.”

In the 2020 primaries, state and local officials also failed to take steps to overcome bureaucratic, linguistic, and other barriers to absentee voting or voting by mail. This prevented many citizens, including Black, Latinx, and Native American people, from voting at all.

A woman interviewed in Columbia, South Carolina, tried, but failed to vote absentee because she had health conditions that put her at high risk of Covid-19. She updated her address months in advance, called multiple times to reconcile the address, but did not receive her absentee ballot with the correct address in time to vote. “I worked hard to get my vote in [for the primary], but I failed to do so,” she said.

Since the primaries, Arizona and Wisconsin have taken steps to improve voter access. A bill is pending in the Pennsylvania legislature that would facilitate poll worker recruitment and the processing of ballots received by mail. A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision extends the time for processing ballots by mail and increases the use of ballot drop boxes in the state. Nevertheless, authorities at all levels throughout the country should do more to ensure that all citizens are able to vote freely and without discrimination, Human Rights Watch said.

“Human Rights Watch’s findings make clear that US election officials made some bad decisions that had a discriminatory impact especially on Black and Latinx people,” said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, an organization with a long record of fighting against racial discrimination in the US. “Looking forward, officials should be on notice that whatever their intentions, actions that have a discriminatory impact violate international human rights law.”

In recent months, countries such as South Korea and Indonesia have increased the number of polling locations to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic. Election officials in the US should also increase the number of polling locations and use of secure drop boxes to accommodate voters who may want “in person” confirmation that their vote has been cast, Human Rights Watch said.

Election officials should also adopt measures to assist people likely to face problems in voting, Human Rights Watch said. Voters with disabilities and older voters, including those living in residential facilities, may need special accommodation like assistance with completing absentee ballots. Officials should ensure that people who have had contact with the criminal legal system and who also have the right to vote can do so. Given failures during recent primaries, officials should ensure that voters have an opportunity to fix a missing or mismatched signature on their ballot or other minor error in time to be counted.

Given United States census data indicating that people living in poverty are less likely to exercise their right to vote, officials need to take additional steps to give low-income people easy access to the ballot box. The announced moratorium on evictions may provide some needed protection, but election officials still need to do all they can to assist voters who may move or lack a stable address, Human Rights Watch said.

United States election officials also need to overcome the confusion experienced during the primaries and prompted by debates over funding for the US Postal Service, crucial for mail-in voting. This confusion makes it important for election officials to do all they can to ensure that voters are informed about how to navigate their local election system. Overcoming language obstacles is critical for Latinx and Native American voters, Human Rights Watch said.

Adjusting to current conditions and avoiding the mistakes of the 2020 primary season also mean that election officials may need more staff, resources, and time beyond election night to process a predicted increase in absentee and vote-by-mail ballots.

“The duty of election officials is to make voting easy for every eligible voter,” Parker said. “Election officials will need to overcome many challenges before election day and beyond to protect the right to vote and ensure credible US elections.”

European Commission Should Defend Asylum Seekers' Rights

Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Click to expand Image The Greek Coast Guard has been accused of using rescue equipment - namely inflatable, motorless life rafts - to leave asylum seekers and migrants adrift in open water close to the Turkish sea border. May 25, 2020 © 2020 Turkish Coast Guard

What will it take for the European Commission, as the guardian of European Union law, to use its enforcement powers against Greece over its treatment of migrants and asylum seekers?

That’s the question at the heart of Oxfam and WeMove Europe’s complaint filed today to the EU’s executive. The complaint shows that Greece’s laws and policies have systematically violated EU law, and the EU Commission has failed to take decisive action to address the situation.

It’s about time. For years, Human Rights Watch has documented the systematic breach of EU law by Greece’s pushbacks at sea and its land borders with Turkey, inhuman and degrading detention and reception conditions for those reaching its territory, including in EU-mandated “hotspots” on the Aegean Islands, and problematic asylum laws and practices when it comes to seeking protection in Greece.

In July, we documented dangerous pushbacks at sea and often-violent collective expulsions of people picked up by Greek police hundreds of kilometers away from the Turkish border, and outside any due process. We documented similar situations in 2008, 2015, 2018, and March 2020. Officials in Brussels have remained largely silent in response to this mounting evidence of illegal practices, including from numerous other nongovernmental groups and international bodies.

Greece has also repeatedly created obstacles for people who may be in need of protection to access asylum, including most recently under the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic. Denying people the fundamental right to seek asylum is in breach of EU law. The Greek Asylum Law also includes many provisions that threaten rights guaranteed by EU standards, undermine access to protection, and expose asylum seekers to greater risks of deportation and longer periods of detention.

The European Commission is set to release its new Pact on Migration and Asylum tomorrow. If the EU wants to demonstrate that the pact is a new start for a more humane and rights-respecting migration policy, the Commission should show more readiness to hold to account member states when, like Greece, they flout protection standards with practices such as pushbacks.

Sudanese Artists Imprisoned for Pro-Democracy Chants

Monday, September 21, 2020
Click to expand Image A mural reading, "The Revolution will go on" is seen on a wall in Khartoum, Sudan, June 18, 2019. © 2019 Umit Bektas/Reuters

On September 18, a court in Khartoum sentenced five Sudanese artists to two months in prison and made them pay a fine of 5,000 Sudanese pounds (USD $90) on charges of “disturbing public peace” and “public nuisance,” for chanting pro-democracy slogans at the police station. The case exposes serious flaws in Sudan’s legal, criminal justice, and judicial systems.

The artists are members of the art collective Civic Lab and were arrested on August 10 while rehearsing a play. According to witnesses, two neighbors, who had previously objected to the group’s activities, entered their offices complaining of noise. One of them physically attacked the group’s office manager, 28-year-old Duaa Tarig.

When the police arrived, they arrested 10 artists even as the neighbors continued to assault them. Police accused the artists of violating Sudan’s Covid-19 curfew, along with the public nuisance charges.

The court dropped the curfew charge but convicted five of the artists on public nuisance. Six others face the same charges. The group’s neighbors were not arrested or charged.

The case underscores how police, prosecutors, and judges are still operating as they did under former president Omar al-Bashir, using vague provisions that give wide discretionary powers for authorities to restrict basic rights and freedoms. The case also highlights the abusive tactics used by police and security officials. At the police station, an officer assaulted Duaa Tarig when she objected to him recording the arrests on his phone. She says that she filed a complaint, but authorities have yet to take action.

At the prison, officers also beat Hajooj Kuka, an internationally-acclaimed filmmaker and activist, and cut part of his hair – a well-known humiliation tactic under al-Bashir’s government, which authorities used during the government’s bloody crackdown on protesters in Khartoum in June 2019.

The five convicted artists are serving their sentence in a prison in Omdurman and appealing the ruling. The court is expected to render its verdict on the remaining six this week.

Sudan’s transitional government has been slow on reform, and these artists are paying the price.

Authorities should release the artists and drop all charges. They should address the longstanding problem of police brutality, investigate abuses, and hold those responsible to account. They should introduce safeguards to prevent authorities using vague “disturbing public peace” and “public nuisance” provisions to restrict freedoms of expression and assembly.  

Kosovo Lead Poisoning Victims Still Awaiting Justice

Monday, September 21, 2020
Click to expand Image Roma children play in the Cesmin Lug refugee camp in Mitrovica city, northern Kosovo. Cesmin Lug is one of several camps that the UN established in what was known to be a heavily contaminated area near a defunct lead mine. December 12, 2007.  © 2007 Carsten Koall/Getty Images Roma children play in the Cesmin Lug refugee camp in Mitrovica city, northern Kosovo. Cesmin Lug is one of several camps that the UN established in what was known to be a heavily contaminated area near a defunct lead mine. December 12, 2007.  © 2007 Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Today, the United Nations human rights expert on hazardous waste called out the UN for consistently failing the victims of widespread lead poisoning in refugee camps it ran in Kosovo. The UN leadership should listen and take long-overdue action in response.

For more than a decade following the end of the war in Kosovo in 1999, about 600 Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan Egyptian minorities lived in refugee camps operated by the UN. The camps sat on land contaminated by lead from a nearby industrial mine. Now, seven years after the last camp was closed, victims experience ongoing health impacts and are still awaiting compensation and health and educational support for themselves and their families.

As the UN expert explains in his report to the UN Human Rights Council, victims of toxic pollution often face multiple challenges when trying to get justice. Evidence for the link between exposure to pollution and related harms may require further study, or it may be difficult to pinpoint who is responsible for the exposure.

Not in this case. The exposure to lead and resulting health impacts in adults and children, including permanent intellectual and developmental disabilities, are undisputed and there is no doubt that the UN, Kosovo’s de-facto government at the time, operated the camps despite clear evidence at the time of contamination. A strong assessment from the UN’s own advisory panel in 2016 found violations against members of displaced communities and recommended the UN pay individual compensation, publicly acknowledge responsibility, and apologize to the victims. But the UN dodged responsibility and four years later there is still no remedy.

The UN human rights expert describes the situation for the Kosovo lead poisoning victims as particularly destructive because, even though the facts of the case are undisputed, their hope for compensation “has been dashed time and again by legalistic apologies … and silence from the international community after report after report.” The United Nations should finally heed its own expert’s advice, clearly admit full responsibility, and finally provide a remedy to the victims.

Cameroon: Heightened Crackdown on Opposition

Monday, September 21, 2020
Click to expand Image Hundreds of supporters raise their arms and wave the national flag while waiting to greet Cameroonian opposition leader Maurice Kamto in Yaoundé on October 5, 2019, the day of his release from prison. © 2019 Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

(Nairobi) – Cameroon authorities banned demonstrations after the opposition party Cameroon Renaissance Movement (Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun, MRC) encouraged people to take to the streets over the government’s decision to call regional elections.

On September 11, 2020, the governors of the Littoral and Centre regions banned public meetings and demonstrations indefinitely. Three days later, Territorial Administration Minister Paul Atanga Nji, in a letter to the two governors and the governor of the West region, warned that law enforcement forces would break up unauthorized demonstrations. He said that the governors should arrest anyone organizing or leading demonstrations, claiming that protests would endanger lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. On September 15, the communication minister warned political parties that protests could be considered “insurrection” and that illegal demonstrations across the country would be punished under the anti-terror law.

“These steps are a thinly veiled attempt by the Cameroonian government to use the Covid-19 pandemic and the draconian anti-terror law as a pretext to quell the right to assemble,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Cameroon’s authorities should protect and facilitate the right to assemble, not seek to curb it.”

These measures came after President Paul Biya announced on September 7 that Cameroon’s first regional elections would be in December. On September 8, Maurice Kamto, the MRC leader, called for peaceful protests on September 22 against holding the elections. Seven other opposition parties and civil society organizations have joined Kamto’s call for peaceful demonstrations. Opposition parties have multiple concerns that they cannot be conducted freely and fairly without reforming the electoral code and addressing the lack of security in the Anglophone regions.

Human Rights Watch conducted phone interviews between mid-August and early September with 15 leaders and members of opposition parties, as well as 5 representatives from civil society and human rights groups.

The Cameroonian government started lifting Covid-19 restrictions in May, allowing bars, restaurants, and nightclubs to reopen. In June, it allowed schools and other training centers to reopen, as well as churches and mosques. The efforts to target the opposition-led demonstrations over Covid-19 appear to be arbitrary, Human Rights Watch said. On September 16, the MRC issued a note providing guidance to all members and supporters who are planning to participate on September 22 on how to ensure peaceful demonstrations and curb the spread of Covid-19 by wearing a face mask.

Other opposition-led meetings and demonstrations have been banned in Cameroon in the last 18 months. In April 2019, the authorities banned a week of demonstrations planned by the MRC across the country. Local authorities recently prohibited two private meetings planned by the party in Maroua, Far North region, on August 9, and in Nkongsamba, West region, on August 15, citing concerns around Covid-19 and general public order.

The Nkongsamba meeting was to be a private meeting at the party headquarters and should not have been subject to a public order ban. In Maroua, where the meeting was to be held in a hotel, the local authorities prohibited the meeting ostensibly on health grounds, although party leaders said they were taking preventive measures to avoid the spread of the Covid-19, including respecting the limit of 50 participants, as required by law. Party leaders told Human Rights Watch that authorities have allowed similar meetings in both cities by the governing Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement.

On September 19, the headquarters of the opposition party Cameroon People’s Party (CPP) in Yaoundé was surrounded by over 30 policemen and gendarmes. “The Yaoundé District Officer claimed that the CPP was holding a public meeting without declaration, but we informed him that we were holding our regular weekly meeting whose participation is limited to our members,” Edith Kahbang Walla, known as “Kah Walla,” CPP president said in a statement published the same day. “This is an umpteenth violation of the law and attempt to intimidate us.” After a standoff of about one hour, CPP members were allowed to leave.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented that Cameroon’s government has used the pandemic as a pretext to settle scores and punish the opposition. In May, the authorities arrested several volunteers from the Survival Initiative, Kamto’s fundraising initiative to respond to the health emergency, as they handed out protective masks and sanitizing gel in Yaoundé, the capital. They were charged with rebellion, then released on May 15.

MRC spokesperson Biboun Nissack told Human Rights Watch that the government’s recent ban on demonstrations “threatens to force our party underground.”

Cameroon’s constitution guarantees freedom of assembly. Cameroonian law requires organizers to notify local authorities seven days before a demonstration. While freedom of assembly is not absolute, and restrictions including those aimed at protecting public health are permissible, any such measures must not only have a legal basis but be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve the objective and not discriminate against particular groups.

Broad, blanket bans such as that invoked by the Cameroon government, in particular in response to political organizing by opposition parties, do not meet these criteria. On March 16, United Nations human rights experts warned that “Emergency declarations based on the Covid-19 outbreak should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health, and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”

The anti-terror law, promulgated in December 2014 as Cameroon struggled to address the escalating threat posed by the Islamist armed group Boko Haram, has been widely criticized, including by Cameroonian and international rights groups and opposition parties, for its overbroad definition of terrorism, the provision of the death penalty, and for being used to silence the opposition, civil society, and the media.

This recent crackdown on freedom of assembly also follows a well-documented pattern of politically motivated arrests and prosecutions of opposition party members and activists, including MRC vice president, Mamadou Mota.

“When government authorities threaten to treat exercise of the right to peaceful protest as an act of insurrection, they are attacking the fundamentals of a society based on human rights and the rule of law,” Mudge said. “Basic freedoms and rights – guaranteed not only under Cameroon’s international obligations, but also in its constitution – are at risk, and if this crackdown leads to wider protests, the excessive use of force and ill-treatment could dramatically escalate.”

Morocco: Espionage Case Against Outspoken Journalist

Monday, September 21, 2020

 

Click to expand Image Journalist and activist Omar Radi waits outside the court in Casablanca, Morocco, March 12, 2020. © 2020 REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

(Washington, DC) – Moroccan authorities have jailed an outspoken journalist and activist, Omar Radi, on espionage and other charges that seem backed by scant evidence, Human Rights Watch said today. His judicial investigation, scheduled to begin on September 22, 2020, raises concerns that authorities are abusing the justice system to silence one of the few remaining critical voices in Moroccan media.

Radi, 34, in jail since July 29, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The work that forms the focus of the “espionage” case involves both journalistic work and research he conducted on contract for foreign-based clients. Radi has denied all the charges against him, including a rape charge that stems from an encounter that he called consensual. His accuser, who has stepped forward publicly, has a right to be heard and respected, and, like Radi, a right to fair judicial proceedings.

“Bringing apparently bogus charges against critical journalists is now clearly part of the Moroccan government’s playbook for stifling dissent,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The espionage charges and a cascade of other charges appear concocted to take Omar Radi down.”

Radi, an award-winning investigative journalist and human rights activist, has published articles about land grabs by speculators and corruption of officials, and collaborated with various Moroccan and international media as a correspondent or stringer.

Human Rights Watch interviewed Radi before he was arrested, as well as his father, his 2 lawyers, 3 of his colleagues, 4 witnesses in 2 of the incidents for which he is being prosecuted, and several members of his support committee. Human Rights Watch also read news reports on websites that are reportedly close to security services, including some that appeared to set out the case presented to the investigative judge.

This is not the first time the authorities have set their sights on Radi. A court jailed him briefly for a tweet critical of a judge in December 2019. In June, Amnesty International reported that Radi’s smartphone had been penetrated by potent spyware that its developer said it sells only to governments. Moroccan authorities furiously denied the accusation, even though a court had in late 2017 approved the tapping of Radi’s phone.

Beginning on June 26, 2020, the judicial police, gendarmerie, and prosecutors summoned Radi for 12 interrogation sessions of six to nine hours each about multiple accusations, including allegedly providing “espionage services” to foreign governments, firms, and organizations. Media close to the security services that specialize in maligning critics published numerous articles insulting Radi, his parents, friends, and supporters; disclosing alleged details of his private life; and correctly forecasting the date of his arrest. One of those reports, which disclosed details of the police investigation on Radi, was briefly available online and then deleted. Human Rights Watch obtained a PDF version of it.

Driss Radi, Omar’s father, told Human Rights Watch that the intense police scrutiny and fierce defamation campaign were akin to “psychological torture” for his son, and provided a psychiatrist’s note, dated July 28, certifying that Omar’s mental health mandated an “absence from work” for 30 days, effective immediately. The police arrested him the next day.

Radi was placed under pretrial detention on July 29 by the investigative judge who justified this measure on the basis of “the danger of the criminal acts, the harm to public order, and the presence of evidence,” Radi’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch. The defense challenged that decision on September 2, arguing that pretrial detention should be reserved for exceptional cases, referencing Morocco’s Constitution, domestic laws, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The judge rejected the motion to grant Radi provisional release on September 3.

The prosecutor’s case against Radi is apparently based on text exchanges he had with a foreign diplomat, contracts he signed with foreign corporate consulting firms to conduct research inside Morocco, and journalistic research he received a grant to conduct on the social impact of communal land expropriations.

Based on police findings, the prosecutor contends that Radi’s activities violate Morocco’s Penal Code article 191 by “harming external state security by maintaining an intelligence relationship with agents of a foreign authority with the purpose or effect to harm the diplomatic situation of Morocco.” Radi’s activities, the prosecutor contends, also warrant charges under article 206 of “harming state internal security by receiving remuneration from a foreign entity for an activity or propaganda that could shake the loyalty that citizens owe to the state and the institutions of the Moroccan people.”

The charges of espionage and harming state security appear to be based on no evidence that Radi did anything besides conduct ordinary journalistic or corporate due diligence work and maintain contact with diplomats, as many journalists and researchers do routinely. There appears to be no evidence that he provided classified information to anyone.

The rape and indecent assault charges against Radi are based on a complaint filed on July 23 by a woman who works at the same news website as him. He claims the sexual encounter, which happened 10 days earlier, was consensual. All sexual assault complaints merit serious investigation, and punishment when the evidence proves guilt. However, there are precedents in Morocco of arresting, trying, or imprisoning independent journalists, activists, or politicians on questionable charges of sexual misconduct.

Morocco has in the recent past jailed other prominent journalists on charges unrelated to their work, along with several internet commentators, activists, and artists sentenced over speech offenses in social media.

“Morocco has a long history of prosecuting peaceful critics on criminal charges, but the prosecutorial pile-on against Omar Radi takes the cake,” Goldstein said. “The authorities should drop all unfounded charges against him, release him pending trial, and guarantee fair and transparent proceedings for him and all parties in court.”

Radi, who has been in Oukacha Prison, in Casablanca, since his arrest on July 29, will appear before an investigative judge on September 22 on accusations of “harming the external security of the State by sharing intelligence with foreign agents in order to undermine Morocco’s diplomatic situation,” “harming the domestic security of the State by receiving foreign funds in order to undermine the citizens’ loyalty to Moroccan institutions,” “indecent assault with violence,” rape, violating Morocco’s general tax code, and tax evasion.

Pretrial Detention

On September 2, Radi’s lawyers requested that their client be released provisionally pending trial. They argued that pretrial detention has to be exceptional under the law and that such an exception doesn’t apply to Radi, who is under a travel ban and has pledged to participate fully in the judicial process. On September 3, the investigative judge rejected the motion to release him on the grounds that “the acts [for which Radi is prosecuted] are dangerous, the investigation is still at its beginning, (and) releasing [Radi] could obstruct investigative proceedings,” the defense told Human Rights Watch. The defense appealed that decision on the grounds that it was accompanied by an insufficient justification. The appeals verdict is expected on September 23.

In the absence of a substantive justification of his pretrial detention, Radi should be released immediately, pending trial, Human Rights Watch said.

Charges of Espionage and Harming State Security

On July 2, a communique read by the Moroccan government’s spokesman at a news conference after a government meeting announced that Radi was “subjected to a judiciary investigation for presumably harming State security because of his connection with an intelligence agent of a foreign country.” The official statement set the tone for a months-long campaign of defamation of Radi on websites reportedly tied with Moroccan security services. Those websites disclosed details on the “foreign intelligence agent” in question, and unequivocally accused Radi of being a “spy.”

Providing information to foreign governments or entities can constitute a recognizable criminal offense, depending on the nature of the information and the recipient and the intent of the provider. But in principle, collecting non-classified information about social conditions, government actions, or business activities and sharing it with other parties, through whatever means, is protected by the internationally recognized right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers,” according to the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Morocco ratified in 1979. That such information may reflect poorly on those in power, or that the recipient may use it to speak critically of them, does not justify criminalizing collecting, or sharing it.

Moreover, accusations such as “harming [a nation’s] diplomatic position” and “undermining loyalty to State institutions” are too vague, and risk criminalization of lawful activities, including free expression. Such broadly worded offenses are so open to arbitrary interpretation by judges that a person cannot reasonably predict what acts will be considered crimes, Human Rights Watch said.  

The Embassy of the Netherlands in Morocco

In late 2017, while massive yet overwhelmingly peaceful socio-economic protests rocked Morocco’s northern Rif region, Radi visited the region frequently to work on a documentary film about the “Hirak” protest movement. During this period, a judge approved a prosecutor’s request to tap Radi’s phone. While his phone was under surveillance, Radi exchanged text messages with a diplomat working at the embassy of the Netherlands in Rabat. The messages included apparently nothing more than arrangements to set up meetings between the two men.

Under police interrogation, Radi insisted that his discussions with the diplomat were routine conversations about news developments in Morocco, including the Rif events.

According to leaks of his judicial file, the prosecutor and the police apparently contend that Radi, in his exchanges with Dutch diplomats, provided information about the Rif unrest for Dutch officials to use in public statements aimed at harming Morocco’s diplomatic situation. This apparently forms the basis for accusing Radi of violating Penal Code article 191, which punishes the crime of “harming the external security of the State by sharing intelligence with foreign agents in order to undermine Morocco’s diplomatic situation” with up to five years in prison.

British Economic Consulting Firms

An article published on July 15 by the news site Le Desk, for which Radi works, says that a British economic consulting company contracted Radi in July 2018 as a local risk assessment consultant. Radi would interview people in Morocco’s financial sector to profile the partners in a Moroccan financial services firm, on behalf of a client of the British company who was considering an investment in the Moroccan firm. Radi received the equivalent of about USD1,500 for the job.

Based on Le Desk’s article, Radi’s contact for the job in the British company was a retired officer of the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whose name was mentioned in a purported list of officers of the MI6, the United Kingdom’s foreign intelligence service.

Radi denied that he knew at the time of any intelligence affiliation of his contact in the British economic advisory company, and denied that he provided that person or that company any services beyond conventional research into private corporations.

The police and the prosecutor apparently concluded that Radi’s services were not an innocent consultancy, but rather espionage. The same apparently applies to Radi’s consultancy for another British firm on Morocco’s agriculture sector, for which he earned the equivalent of about USD450.

Radi’s work for these firms, along with his contacts with the Netherlands Embassy, form the basis for the accusation that he harmed “external security” under the Penal Code article 191. The prosecutor’s case and the police report on which it is founded, however, do not appear to contain evidence of the nature of the materials that Radi provided either firm that constitute the crime of espionage, or that he provided it knowing that it would damage state security.

The Bertha Foundation

In January 2019, the Geneva-based Bertha Foundation awarded a grant to Radi. The foundation offers paid fellowships to journalists and activists who work to bring about economic and social change. The grant’s purpose was for Radi to conduct research on the social impact of land expropriation for public utility purposes in Morocco.

The grant was part of a program called Bertha Challenge, which supports Bertha fellows to answer the question: “How is the nexus between property, profit, and politics contributing to land and housing injustice, and what can be done to fix this?” For the police, this amounted to Radi agreeing to an assignment from a foreign organization whose purpose is to stir up a sentiment of injustice among the Moroccan public over land expropriation.

The prosecutor recommended charging Radi under Penal Code article 206, which punishes “harming the domestic security of the State by receiving from a foreign organization any form of gift, present or benefit destined to remunerate in Morocco an activity or propaganda that aims to […] shake the loyalty due by the citizens to the State and the institutions of the Moroccan people.” The penalty is up to five years in prison. 

In 2015, authorities accused a history professor, Maati Monjib, and four media freedom activists – Hicham Mansouri, Hicham Khreibchi (also known as Hicham Al-Miraat), Samad Ait Aicha, and Mohamed Essaber – of violating article 206 after they received funding from a Dutch nongovernmental group to develop training for citizen journalists. The trial was repeatedly postponed and is still pending. Mansouri, Al Miraat, and Ait Aicha fled Morocco after what they described as a campaign of state harassment. Monjib, who stayed in Morocco, has been attacked and insulted repeatedly by websites close to security services.

Charges of Indecent Assault and Rape

On July 23, a woman who works as an advertisement salesperson for Le Desk, the news site that employs Radi, filed charges of rape and indecent assault with violence against him. The alleged incident happened in a house owned by the Le Desk’s director that is sometimes used as a workplace by staff. The woman, Radi, and a third employee of Le Desk, Imad Stitou, a journalist, had been invited to stay for the night, and each was assigned a separate couch to sleep on in a large living room on the ground floor.

Radi and his accuser agree that they had a sexual encounter in that living room at around 2 a.m. on July 13. However, while Radi said the sex was consensual, the woman said she was assaulted. The testimony Stitou later provided to the gendarmerie was consistent with Radi’s account, as the accuser herself acknowledged in an interview.

In an unusual procedural move, the court joined into a single file the rape charges and the harming internal and external state security charges. The same investigating judge will examine all of these charges.  

Charges of Public Drunkenness, Violence, Insults

In a separate case, Radi will appear before a judge on September 24 on charges of “manifest public drunkenness,” violence, and insults, and risks up to six months in prison. This case stems from a spat that Radi and Sitou had with Karim Alaoui, a cameraman of Chouf TV, a Moroccan online website reportedly tied with security services, outside a pub in Casablanca on July 5.

A video of the incident features Alaoui hurling insults at Radi, calling him a “thief” and a “drunk.” Radi told Human Rights Watch he suspects the incident was a provocation based on the fact that the police intervened almost immediately and arrested him and Stitou while Alaoui, who had been stalking him for days, was not detained and faces lesser charges.

In a statement published on Facebook, Radi said that Alaoui had been harassing him each time he entered or left Casablanca’s judicial police headquarters, where he was interrogated. Two witnesses to the incident told Human Rights Watch that Alaoui had been waiting outside the pub for hours while Radi was inside, and started filming him the minute he and Stitou walked out, around 11 p.m. The three men exchanged words while filming one another with their mobile phones.

No violence occurred, said the witnesses. They added that a police van, which was apparently stationed in an adjacent street, appeared less than a minute after the spat started. The police arrested Radi and Stitou, while letting Alaoui free. The director of Le Desk, who reported on the incident, called it a “total ambush.” Radi and Stitou were held overnight and released the next afternoon.

Radi told Human Rights Watch that the police confiscated his smartphone during his arrest, and that a police officer told him that the police had viewed its contents, including conversations on the encrypted messaging app Signal. Radi and Stitou were charged with public drunkenness, violence, insults, and filming a person without their authorization. They face up to six months in prison if convicted. Alaoui was charged with the last two of these charges. Stitou and Alaoui are provisionally free pending a first court hearing on this case scheduled for September 24.

Chouf TV was mentioned as part of the “Slander Media,” a group of websites reportedly tied with security services that was denounced on July 16 by a collective of 110 Moroccan journalists for bombarding dissidents with “defamation, insults and calumny” each time the authorities placed them under investigation.

Sex Offense Cases in a Politicized Context

Morocco has a history of arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning independent journalists, activists, or politicians on questionable charges of sex outside of wedlock or sexual assault. Some of these trials have been widely denounced as politically motivated and failing to guarantee due process for all parties.

These cases take place in a context in which Moroccan women typically face barriers to reporting sexual violence and pursuing redress, including where they can find themselves prosecuted for sex outside of marriage if their claim of rape is not believed, and in which conviction rates are low.

In May 2015, a court in Rabat sentenced Hicham Mansouri, a media freedom activist, and a female co-defendant to 10 months in prison for adultery. Two months earlier, a leading member of the Islamist opposition Justice and Benevolence (Al Adl wa’l Ihsan) movement, El-Mostafa Erriq, and a woman he was visiting were arrested and detained for three days. Erriq, like Mansouri, claimed that the police set him up and fabricated the evidence of adultery, including forcibly undressing and photographing him at the scene.

In September 2019, a court in Rabat convicted and sentenced Hajar Raissouni, a journalist, to one year in prison for having an abortion and sex outside marriage. A prosecutor publicly disclosed deeply personal details about her sexual and reproductive life, based on a gynecological exam performed on Raissouni without her consent while she was in detention. Such examinations, when performed without consent, amount to cruel and degrading treatment under international human rights standards.

The court also sentenced Raissouni’s fiancé and the doctor accused of performing the abortion to one and two years in prison, respectively. All denied the charges. Raissouni, her fiancé, and the doctor were freed on October 16 after receiving a royal pardon. The case was possibly motivated by Raissouni’s family ties with high-profile dissidents, and her journalistic work at Akhbar Al Yaoum, a daily newspaper that authorities have targeted repeatedly for its independent reporting and commentary.

Other journalists of Akhbar Al Yaoum have been jailed on sexual misconduct charges. In May 2020, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Souleiman Raissouni, was arrested under suspicion of sexually assaulting a man. His trial has not yet begun.

In October 2019, Akhbar Al Yaoum’s publisher, Taoufik Bouachrine, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for sexually assaulting several women, in a trial that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded was marred by due-process violations and part of a “judicial harassment attributable to nothing other than his investigative journalism.”
 
In an op-ed she published in the Washington Post, Afaf Bernani, a woman who worked for Bouachrine’s newspaper, said she fled to Tunisia in 2019 after she was sentenced to six months in jail in Morocco. She had been prosecuted for claiming that a statement she gave to the police was forged to falsely reflect that she accused Bouachrine of sexually molesting her. Bernani said she “endured multiple forms of harassment and psychological torture” after she denied that Bouachrine assaulted her, including being abducted by the police, a police raid of the home of a friend where she was staying, and pervasive slander campaigns against her in media close to security services.

In a Facebook post dated August 25, the woman who accuses Radi of rape responded to Bernani’s Washington Post op-ed. She stated that her case is unlike Bernani’s, and that she is a victim of sexual violence who came forward on her own. 

The “Slander Media”

Between June 7 and September 15, Human Rights Watch counted at least 136 articles attacking Radi, his family, and supporters in the Moroccan news websites Chouf TV, Barlamane, Le360, in their Arabic and French versions. In the past few years, hundreds of other articles were published in those websites and others with comparable editorial lines, attacking Moroccan journalists, activists, and artists critical of the authorities.

The articles often included vulgar insults and personal information. The information included banking and property records, screenshots of private electronic conversations, allegations about sexual relationships (or oblique threats to expose them), identities of roommates, and biographical details, sometimes as far back as their childhood, complete with information on the parents of the targeted individuals.

Chouf TV, Barlamane, and Le360 are part of what a collective of 110 Moroccan journalists denounced on July 16 as “Slander Media,” a group of websites “whose editorial line consists in attacking voices that bother those in power.”

In investigative articles and elsewhere, several journalists identified the media in question as “close to the royal palace,” or having close ties with Morocco’s police and intelligence services. On at least one occasion, Chouf TV correctly alluded to the future date of arrest of a journalist who was still free.

In an investigative article exposing the authorities’ “sexual strategy” to target Moroccan critics, exiled media activist Hicham Mansouri wrote that “secret services exert an increasingly strong hold on political life, by manipulating media specialized in lies and defamation.” “[These media] frequently attack critics and announce their imminent arrest,” a person who was targeted told Human Rights Watch. “When you see your name and your private information exposed in there, you think twice before taking public positions again.” He spoke anonymously, for fear of further retaliation by those websites and the police, which he says work hand-in-hand.

In a symposium organized in Rabat in 2017 by several human rights organizations, the conclusions of which were published in a book in 2019, several journalists and university professors denounced the “Slander Media’s” defamation campaigns against Moroccan dissidents.

Tax Evasion Charges

Prior to arresting him, the police also questioned Radi over bank and cash transfers he received from outside Morocco as payment for various jobs, including for freelance articles for foreign media. The total amount of these payments, between 2012 and 2020, amounted to about $15,000. The case against Radi apparently includes an accusation that he failed to declare these amounts to fiscal authorities. Tax evasion in Morocco is punished by fines, except in cases of repeat offenses, which carry short prison sentences.

Police Abuse Continues in Belarus

Monday, September 21, 2020
Click to expand Image Police officers detain Nina Bahinskaya, 73, during an opposition rally to protest the official presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, September 19, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/TUT.by

Police abuse of peaceful protesters and passers-by in Belarus is continuing, as are protests over disputed presidential elections and police brutality.

On September 12, a 21-year-old student from Minsk was scrolling on his phone when masked officers in green uniform detained him, breaking his nose and throwing him into a minivan with no number plates. Five officers in the vehicle beat him, demanded the password for his phone, and threatened to rape him with a truncheon while pulling his shorts down.

The next day, another young man, Evgeny, was detained during a peaceful protest in Minsk. Riot police took him and other detainees to Frunzensky precinct. Evgeny was second-to-last to step out of the van into the courtyard. He heard the police shout abuse and beat the last person inside the van. An officer asked Evgeny whether he wanted to get back in the vehicle for a similar “conversation.” Evgeny said he recently underwent surgery. The officer told him to show the stitches and punched him on the stitched incision as soon as he lowered his trousers. The precinct staff had to call Evgeny an ambulance.

These are only two of the many alleged beatings and ill-treatment by police in mid-September, as detentions of peaceful protestors again began to rise. This past Sunday, police arbitrarily detained 400 participants in the Women’s March in Minsk.  

Some of those who filed complaints about police torture in August have already received letters from the authorities, saying that investigators saw no grounds for launching criminal proceedings. High-level officials vehemently deny well-documented abuse, and a crackdown on local activists who provide legal aid and other assistance to victims of police brutality is underway.

On September 17, member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) invoked the Moscow Mechanism, establishing an independent expert mission to investigate alleged abuses in Belarus. The next day, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to tackle the human rights crisis in Belarus, urging the authorities to fulfil their obligations under international human rights law and setting in motion close monitoring of the situation by the UN’s Human Rights Commissioner.

Heightened international scrutiny of Belarus is vital to discourage the authorities from further abuses and help victims in their quest for justice.

Lebanon Police Force Directs Blame for Abuse Against Protesters

Monday, September 21, 2020
Click to expand Image A policeman strikes a protester during anti-government demonstrations on August 8, 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon. © 2020 Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images

The Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF), in a letter to Human Rights Watch, has denied their members used live ammunition, rubber bullets, or metal pellets during the August 8 protest in downtown Beirut. Instead, the ISF pointed to the Parliament Security Force, comprising Parliament Police and an army company, as having used these weapons. The ISF also identified men in civilian clothing seen in photos and videos circulating on social media shooting or aiming to shoot at protesters as “civilian employees of the Parliament Police.”

Human Rights Watch documented the Lebanese security forces’ use of excessive, and at times lethal, force against mostly peaceful protesters in Beirut demanding accountability for August’s blast. More than 700 people were injured during the protest, with most serious injuries caused by security forces firing metal pellets into the crowd. The ISF, Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and Parliament Police were all deployed at the protest.

The ISF said that they did not open investigations into the conduct of their members, as they said none used excessive or unlawful force and adhered strictly to the orders they were given. However, Human Rights Watch documented members of the police using excessive amounts of tear gas and firing it directly at protesters, as well as beating protesters.

The army has not yet responded to a Human Rights Watch request for comment about its members’ conduct on August 8. Although the army has publicly denied its members fired live ammunition toward protesters on August 8, Human Rights Watch verified evidence showing two soldiers from the Airborne Regiment doing just that. The army should also investigate and comment on the ISF’s allegations that the army company included in the Parliament Security Force fired rubber bullets and metal pellets at protesters.

Parliament Police declined to provide comment. When Human Rights Watch attempted to summarize its findings to an official during an August 19 phone call, he hung up. The Parliament Police has been responsible for serious abuses against protesters since Lebanon’s October 17 uprising. But despite a wealth of publicly available information about the force’s command structure and operations, it refuses to speak with human rights and media organizations.

Impunity for security force abuse cannot be allowed to continue. Lebanon’s Public Prosecutor should urgently open an investigation into the events that took place on August 8 and make the results public. International donors to Lebanon’s security forces, meanwhile, should investigate whether their support is going to abusive units, and if so, halt that support immediately.

Migrant Workers Stranded in Russia Flocking to Border

Monday, September 21, 2020
Click to expand Image More than 4,000 Uzbek nationals live in a temporary camp in Kinel district, Samara region, Russia, intended for 900 people, waiting for a train to take them back to Uzbekistan, September 2020. © 2020 Human Rights Watch

“Please tell them to send more trains!” I heard this repeated often last week while visiting a temporary migrant camp on Russia’s border with Kazakhstan, filled with Uzbek migrants desperate to be repatriated home to Uzbekistan.

People started flocking to the camp, near the Kinel train station in Russia’s Samara region, in late August from around Russia. The camp is designed for 900, but officials say over 4,000 people are there, including at least 43 children. They all want to get on a train bound for Uzbekistan, but trains run only weekly and can hold around 950 people. Repatriating the camp’s current inhabitants could take over a month, not to mention those who continue to arrive daily.

Migrant workers in Russia were hard hit by the financial consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with effectively no social support from the Russian government or their own embassies, many have long wanted to return home. In response to Covid-19, Russia and Uzbekistan, like many countries, closed their borders. Migrants faced erratic and ad hoc repatriation measures. Lacking information and fearing the reintroduction of more stringent travel restrictions later in the year, many have latched on to rumors that they can catch a train home.

One woman whose planned departure in April was thwarted by the pandemic hasn’t seen her children in four years. Another said she worked only one day after coming to Russia, and was laid off in March, surviving through assistance from fellow migrant workers since. Permissions for many migrants to be in Russia may have expired on September 15.

Newcomers either buy tiny tents or build their own from sticks and tarps. Local authorities deliver water twice daily and have installed latrines, which some migrants noted are too few and overused. Living conditions are extremely cramped, making social distancing impossible, and residents are vulnerable to the rain and increasingly colder nights. There’s no medical care on site nor testing for the virus that causes Covid-19. One woman who expressed concern to the camp administration was told, “We didn’t ask you to come here.”

The camp administration apparently wishes to ensure that as little information about the camp as possible gets out. According to journalists who visited last week, the camp administration demanded migrants stop talking to them. Migrants said that no Uzbek diplomat has yet visited the camp, and people cannot reach the consulates by phone.

Russia and Uzbekistan need to work together to facilitate safe repatriation for those migrants who, feeling abandoned, took it into their own hands to make it as far as the border. And keep them safe while they wait.

International Scrutiny Increases for Belarus

Saturday, September 19, 2020
Click to expand Image Protesters objecting to the flawed August presidential election and the government's brutality, in march along the Independence Prospect during the "March of Unity" rally in Minsk, Belarus on Sunday, Sep. 6, 2020, Belarus. © 2020 SIPA USA via AP

Internationally, pressure is increasing on Belarus, where for the past 41 days, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest alleged election fraud in the presidential vote and the ensuing violence against demonstrators by law enforcement.

On September 17, 17 participating countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced an independent expert investigation into torture and repression in Belarus. On September 18, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that sets in motion close UN human rights monitoring of the situation by the UN’s human rights chief, requesting that she provide an oral update by the end of 2020 and a report to the Human Rights Council by March 2021.

The outpouring started the night of the August 9 presidential election. In the first few days after the vote, riot police arrested nearly 7,000 protesters and bystanders and systematically beat and committed acts of torture against hundreds. Authorities arrested and deported dozens of journalists. They arrested or forced into exile most of the country’s political opposition leaders. They have also threatened to fire people from their jobs for protesting.

For a time, the number of arrests dropped, but now they are ticking up again. Police are detaining hundreds of people throughout the country, including students and prominent rights activists, grabbing them from home and work, accusing them of participating in past protests. On September 17, they arrested Maria Ryabkova, a human rights defender with Viasna, one of Belarus’s top human rights groups, who documented police torture in recent weeks.

In contrast, authorities have yet to launch a single criminal investigation into the well-documented cases of torture.

For weeks, the protests and crackdown have made headlines, with the latter drawing international condemnation. Hopefully, the recent moves by both the OSCE and the UN Human Rights Council show that international attention on Belarus will not only be sustained but increase.

These inquiries do not eliminate, but rather underscore Belarus’ own obligations to hold police accountable for beating, sexually abusing, and humiliating detained protesters and others. The inquiries will also help establish an authoritative, independent record of the abuses, and maintain the spotlight on Belarusian authorities’ conduct for months to come.

Importantly, the inquiries will also signal to those fighting for their rights in Belarus that they are not alone.

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